A few years ago my best friend, Lauren, lent me this book as an introduction to the country that she was temporarily immigrating to, to study Medicine. She’s been in said country, Australia, ever since and this book has held a coveted spot on my bookshelf of travel literature in her absence. In a Sunburned Country thus subsequently became my gateway to the works of a man whom I now consider my favourite travel writer — Bill Bryson.
Born in Des Moines, Iowa, Bryson has become an itinerant ex-pat, splitting his time between the United States and England. With his self-deprecating humour, cleverness, unending knowledge, and an uncanny way with words, Bryson draws you in to his writing, absorbing you into whatever scene or setting he is describing.
I have become so enamoured with this man’s stories that I decided to dedicate all Travel Lit Tuesdays in December to his work. For the next five weeks (this year December has five Tuesdays — how convenient, I have five Bryson books), I will share with you Notes From a Small Island, A Walk in the Woods, The Lost Continent, and Neither Here Nor There. But first, In a Sunburned Country, or what I’d like to call, An Ode to Oz.
I’ve always played with the idea of spending an extended period of time in Australia. Now that I’ve read this book however, the notion is firmly planted in my head that I absolutely must go. It has also provided me with a list of things that I’d like to do while I’m there — like riding 2,720 miles (about 4,377 kilometers) across the southern part of the country, from Sydney to Perth on the Indian Pacific Railroad; or visiting the Tree Top Walk in the Valley of the Giants in the South West region of Western Australia; or seeing the magnificent Uluru.
Within the first few pages, Bryson gives us a general, yet concise, overview of the country and some very interesting (but thoroughly terrifying) stats on its fauna:
Australia is the world’s sixth largest country and its largest island. It is the only island that is also a continent, and the only continent that is also a country. It was the first continent conquered from the sea, and the last. It is the only nation that began as a prison.
It is the home of the largest living thing on earth, the Great Barrier Reef, and of the largest monolith, Ayers Rock (or Uluru to use its now-official, more respectful Aboriginal name). It has more things that will kill you than anywhere else. Of the world’s ten most poisonous snakes, all are Australian. Five of its creatures — the funnel-web spider, box jellyfish, blue-ringed octopus, paralysis tick, and stonefish — are the most lethal of their type in the world. This is a country where even the fluffiest of caterpillars can lay you out with a toxic nip, where seashells will not just sting you but actually sometimes go for you. Pick up an innocuous cone shell from a Queensland beach, as innocent tourists are all too wont to do, and you will discover the little fellow inside is not just astoundingly swift and testy but exceedingly venomous. If you are not stung or pronged to death in some unexpected manner, you may be fatally chomped by sharks or crocodiles, or carried helplessly out to sea by irresistible currents, or left to stagger to an unhappy death in the baking outback. It’s a tough place.
He also discusses the phenomena many face trying to get to this isolated continent:
Each time you fly from North America to Australia, and without anyone asking how you feel about it, a day is taken away from you when you cross the international date line. I left Los Angeles on January 3 and arrived in Sydney fourteen hours later on January 5. For me there was no January 4. None at all. Where it went exactly I couldn’t tell you. All I know is that for one twenty-four hour period in the history of earth, it appears I had no being.
The fact that I can send a text message to Lauren from the other side of the world still baffles me. Losing an entire day, without evidence of it even existing, while travelling to Australia absolutely confounds me. My brain wasn’t made to understand such discrepancies in time and space.
Throughout the book, Bryson somehow manages to visit every single province within Australia — no small feat seeing how massive the continent is. He tells us about the big cities, like the capital of Canberra…
My one tip for you if you ever go to Canberra is don’t leave your hotel without a good map, a compass, several days’ provisions, and a cell phone with the number of a rescue service. I walked for two hours through green, pleasant, endlessly identical neighbourhoods, never entirely confident that I wasn’t just going around in a large circle. From time to time I would come to a leafy rotary with spoked roads radiating off in various directions, each presenting an identical vista of antipodean suburban heaven, and I would venture down the one that looked most likely to take me to civilization only to emerge ten minutes later at another identical rotary. I never saw another soul on foot or anyone watering a lawn or anything like that. Very occasionally a car would glide past, pausing at each intersection, the driver looking around with a despairing expression that said “Now, where the fuck is my house?”
Adelaide is the most overlooked of Australia’s principal cities. You could spend weeks in Australia and never suspect it was there, for it rarely makes the news or gets a mention in anyone’s conversation. It is to Australia essentially what Australia is to the world — a place pleasantly regarded but far away and seldom thought about. And yet it is unquestionably a lovely city. Everyone is agreed on that, including millions who have never been there.
Melbourne had a settled and gracious air that was much more European than North American…I liked it, straight off, without quibble or doubt, in a way I had never expected to. Something about it just agreed with me…It had a casualness and vivacity — a lack of reserve, a comfortableness with strangers — that felt distinctly American, but hung on a British framework.
Perth is a cheery and welcoming place. There is first of all the delight in finding it there at all, for Perth is far and away the most remote big city on earth, closer to Singapore than to Sydney, though not actually close to either. Behind you stretches seventeen hundred miles of inert red emptiness all the way to Adelaide; before you nothing but a featureless blue sea for five thousand miles to Africa.
Interlaced with his time in the urban areas of Australia, is a dedicated effort to see much of the vast space in between — the outback:
It’s not even possible to say quite where the outback is. To Australians anything vaguely rural is “the bush.” At some indeterminate point “the bush” becomes “the outback.” Push on for another two thousand miles or so and eventually you come to bush again, and then a city, and then the sea. And that’s Australia.
Not including his train trip across the country (which travels through a good portion of desert/outback/bush), Bryson drives himself throughout many of the provinces, experiencing outback life and the inhabitants contained within it:
Between the merciless sun and the isolation, outback people are not always the most gifted of communicators. We had heard of one shopkeeper who, upon being asked by a smiling visitor from Sydney where the fish were biting, stared at the man incredulously for a long moment and replied, “In the fucking river, mate, where do you think?”
Remind me not to ask stupid questions if I find myself in a similar situation.
One notable part of the book sees Bryson and his British friend, Allan, driving south along the Stuart Highway from Daly Waters, Northern Territory to Alice Springs — the closest city to Uluru. From reading this part of the book we really are given an excellent account of what driving in the outback is like (a run-on joke between the two men involves having to drink one’s own urine in case they get lost in the desert and run out of supplies).
Upon reaching Alice Springs, however, both men realize that the town doesn’t have much of the “outback charm” that the guidebooks and travel articles claim, due to its strip malls, fast food joints and car dealerships. Allan even quips to Bill:
I can’t believe we’ve just driven a thousand mile to find a Kmart…You Yanks have a lot to answer for, you know.
Alice Springs, thankfully for them it seems, was only to act as a launching pad for the men to reach Uluru (formerly known as Ayer’s Rock):
There, in the middle of a memorable and imposing emptiness, stands an eminence of exceptional nobility and grandeur, 1,150 feet high, a mile and a half long, five and a half miles around, less red than photographs have led you to expect but in every other way more arresting than you could ever have supposed…In some odd way that you don’t understand and can’t begin to articulate you feel an acquaintance with it — a familiarity on an unfamiliar level. Somewhere in the deep sediment of your being some long-dormant fragment of primordial memory, some little severed tail of DNA, has twitched or stirred. It is a motion much too faint to be understood or interpreted, but somehow you feel certain that this large, brooding, hypnotic presence has an importance to you at the species level — perhaps even at a sort of tadpole level — and that in some way your visit here is more than happenstance.
I’ve always been familiar with this monolith (really, who isn’t?), but the urge to visit it never really took hold of me before. I guess that just coincides with Bill’s impression that the majority of the world forgets about Australia because it’s “a long way away”:
The fact is, of course, we pay shamefully scant attention to our dear cousins Down Under — not entirely without reason, of course. Australia is after all mostly empty and a long way away. It’s population, just over 18 million, is small by world standards — China grows by a larger amount each year — and its place in the world economy is consequently peripheral; as an economic entity, it ranks about level with Illinois…Above all, Australia doesn’t misbehave. It is stable and peaceful and good. It doesn’t have coups, recklessly over fish, arm disagreeable despots, grow coca in provocative quantities, or through its weight around in a brash and unseemly manner.
I’ve now added Uluru, amongst other things, to my Travel Bucket List. Thank you, Bill, for reminding me about the wonders of this strange yet beautiful country. Not only is this man brilliant at writing, he should also become a spokesman for Tourism Australian. It’s clear that he loves this country despite its treacherous desert heat, unfathomable amount of things that can kill you, and sheer size.
Let me say right here that I love Australia — adore it immeasurably — and am smitten anew each time I see it.
I have now come to love it, too. I still don’t know how I’ll deal with not existing for a whole day on my way there, though…